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Monday, March 11, 2013

NES Replay: Alpha Mission

Developer: SNK
Publisher: SNK
Released: 1987
Difficult?: Yes, but fair.
In NES Replay, we go through each NES game from A-Z to see if they're any good. Today: Alpha Mission.

I've had some mean things to say about games with excessive difficulty levels, but I want to make it clear: A hard game isn't necessarily a bad game.

See, there are two ways to make a game more difficult. The cheap way is by making the player character underpowered, weak and slow and surrounding them with things that can kill them at a moment's notice, then making the player run through the gauntlet again and again. The other, more thoughtful way is by giving the player character a very difficult job to do, but providing them with the tools to do it.

Leave it to SNK to show how it's done with Alpha Mission.

Alpha Mission is a top-down shooter that can be incredibly difficult. Your little ship can only take one hit before you die and you're back at the beginning of the level. However, we're going to compare Alpha Mission with another really hard game that we've covered: The Adventures of Dino Riki. This should be a good direct comparison, since in both games it doesn't take long until you're swarmed with enemies and desperately trying to fight your way out.

A hard game done right.
However, there's a key difference between the two. In Riki, your player starts out really weak. The tomahawks he throws only land a few feet in front of him, and Riki moves incredibly slowly in comparison to his opponents. There appears to almost be a pre-defined path you must travel in order to complete the game, because if you haven't picked up certain powerups at the beginning of the level, you're going to get killed. It's inevitable.

However, in Alpha Mission, your ship's bullets travel the length of the screen and your ship moves quickly enough to evade your enemies. You have two weapons: Bombs and bullets. The bombs you drop below you and hit ground targets. Most ground targets contain powerups, and a lot of the ground targets have a big red E that stands for Energy. Others have different letters that unlock other special powered-up ships.

When you have enough Energy, you can hit Select and bring up your currently available ship choices. For example, one of the ships spews a steady stream of fire out of the front that can obliterate enemies. Another ship has a shield that can absorb enemy bullets. When you run out of Energy, you revert back to your old ship.

Even with the powerups, Alpha Mission's difficulty is still crazy. I was only able to get to the second level, and I've been playing a lot more than my normal twenty minutes. Yet, giving the player choices as to how to beat the levels opens up experimentation, lets players use their own play styles, and at least gives you the feeling of fairness.

By comparing the two games, we can tell the difference. Anyone can make an impossible game. That's easy to do. A game that gimps your player character, puts an excessive amount of enemies in your path, gives them a lot more health that you and then expects you to fight your way out through impossible odds is just being a bully. Some people like getting bullied, and we call those people masochists.

A really well-made game like Alpha Mission, though, presents you with an impossible task, but at the same provides you with the tools to complete it. Those are the kind of games that truly deserve to be celebrated, not the ones curbstomp that gamers into submission and then have the temerity to act like it's the gamer's fault.

Final Rating:


Next Week: Amagon